Building a Bridge to a Better Future: The Environment, Women’s Rights & Population Growth

Mar 14th, 2012 | By | Category: Family Planning

By Suzanne York,, March 14, 2012

If you care about people and the planet, listen up!  According to recent research, 8 in 10 environmentalists want to see population growth addressed along with a focus on consumption and clean energy. This is good news. We cannot afford to continue to “silo” the critical issues facing us, but rather must link them and confront the issues head on.

Last fall Americans for UNFPA (United Nations Population Fund), now called Friends of UNFPA, commissioned research by Belden Russonello Strategists to gauge support for international family planning issues by people who consider themselves environmentalists (defined as someone who donated or volunteered for an environmental organization in the previous year). The results of this particular survey were encouraging:

  • 94% of environmentalists are aware that the global population is growing, and an overwhelming 90% believe that this growth will have a negative impact on the global environment;
  • Environmentalists strongly support funding for international voluntary contraception and 83% support U.S. funding of UNFPA;
  • Environmentalists feel that population growth has a negative effect on the environment, especially on the availability of scarce resources;
  • Environmentalists believe that contraception can make a big difference in slowing population growth.

Granted, this is a poll of people who self-identify as environmentalists, and not the general populace. Nevertheless, it underscores some important findings and points out the direction we should be moving toward.

The main recommendation from this research is that we must emphasize the connections among environmental sustainability, women’s empowerment, and family planning. The is a very important point. The environmental movement should build on a framework of justice – social, environmental, and economic. We can start by reaching for the low-hanging fruit of investing in family planning and women’s rights.

This means ensuring education for women and girls, providing access to health care, including family planning services, recognizing greater land rights, reducing and eradicating gender and economic inequality, ending child marriages, and improving economic opportunities. This will allow women – who bear the brunt of environmental problems – to be able to deal with the increasingly severe environmental problems affecting communities the world over. Women are on the front lines of climate change, and once their needs are met they can use traditional knowledge and skills that many have to help overcome pressing environmental issues.

Friends of the UNFPA recommend the following strategies for environmentalists when talking about international family planning: 1) emphasize the importance of empowering women, 2) educate all environmentalists about the unmet need for family planning, 3) connect population and the environment and acknowledge the complexity of the issues, 4) highlight the links between population growth and resource scarcity, and 5) discuss the positive outcomes of family planning.

The research reflects that environmentalists are more concerned about resource consumption than population, but they would like to see a campaign that addresses both of these issues. Unsustainable consumption in developed countries has been a driving force of environmental degradation for decades, and now citizens of emerging economies are beginning to adopt the same lifestyle.

Yet by providing family planning services to those who want it, we can begin to deal with global population growth, which, along with consumption, contributes to the loss of natural resources – from forests to water to fisheries – upon which we all depend. Let’s give people what they want, namely education, healthcare, and economic security, and acknowledge that consumerism isn’t making us happy. There are limits to the earth’s resources that we should strive to live within for our well-being, and the planet’s.

Ultimately, we can’t talk on only one issue at the exclusion of another. Environmental activists, along with women’s rights, justice, and reproductive health advocates, should focus on the future and how to best combine efforts so we can create that better world we all are looking for, and need.

Suzanne York is a senior writer with the Institute for Population Studies/

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